Plastic waste being placed in a bin liner.

Plastics Recycling

Plastic is an incredibly popular material due to its low cost, versatility and durability, and is used in a wide range of applications, including packaging, drinks bottles, medical equipment, electronic equipment and toys.

Many of these qualities also create problems at the end of a plastic products life, as the material remains for many years in the natural environment if not collected for recycling. What's more, some plastics are not currently easily recycled, requiring safe disposal instead.

The most common plastic items recycled in north London are plastic bottles and packaging such as empty food pots, tubs and trays. There are many different types of plastic, with the most common types found in packaging including Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and Polypropylene (PP). Plastics recycling can be confusing, but the information below should make it straightforward to ensure you are dong it right.

What to do with your plastics recycling

Your plastics recycling should be kept separate from your general waste and placed in your mixed recycling bin. This is collected by your local council. For more information about recycling and waste collections check your council website:

Plastics can also be taken to reuse and recycling centres (RRC) in north London. Find your local RRC here.

What plastics can you recycle in north London?

Not all plastics can be recycled in north London, due to difficulties in sorting, contamination and issues with packaging being made from a mixture of materials that are hard to separate. In order for items to be recycled, there also need to be cost-effective markets for the recycled materials.

You can recycle:

  • Plastic bottles (including lids)
  • Plastic pots, tubs and trays
  • Plastic carrier bags – Single-use plastic carrier bags are cheap to produce but the quality of plastic is relatively poor compared with bottles, pots, tubs and trays. They are also often littered, causing serious impacts on the environment. Although they can be recycled, we do strongly recommend choosing reusable bags instead of single-use plastic bags.

You cannot recycle:

  • Hard plastics: There is currently no cost-effective market for recycling hard plastics such as toys or hard plastic containers. These should be disposed of in the general waste container at an RRC or, if in good condition, they can be taken to the NLWA reuse shop Second Time Around at the Kings Road RRC, where they will be sold on. 
  • Plastic film: Plastic film is not accepted for recycling in north London as it is often contaminated with food waste and is very difficult to sort from other plastics.
  • Food container bags: Items such as crisp and sweet packets, film lids, plastic wrapping bags and laminated pouches are not accepted for recycling as they are often made of more than one material, which are difficult to separate. Some companies do run recycling schemes for these items
  • Medicine packs: These are normally made of two materials and are difficult to separate.
  • Medical equipment: Items such as syringes and drip bags are potentially hazardous and cannot be recycled.
  • Toothpaste tubes: Squeezable plastic tubes that contain products such as toothpaste or hand cream can only be recycled if they are totally clean inside. Unless you cut them open to remove all the contents, they should go into the general waste. Alternatively, Terracycle has a number of drop-off points where toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and packaging can be recycled. However, pump action toothpaste tubes can be recycled.
  • Expanded polystyrene: Polystyrene is very cheap to produce and due to its very low weight and high volume needs specialised machinery to separate it into useful elements. This means the recycling process is too energy intensive to be cost-effective.
  • Plastic bottles containing chemicals: These cannot be recycled as strong chemicals are hazardous to staff and can damage recycling equipment.
  • Compostable plastic: Compostable plastic, made from organic materials such as vegetable starch or soy protein, cannot be distinguished from non-compostable packaging, which contaminates food and garden waste, and so must be disposed of in the general waste bin.

Plastic recycling tips

Recycling your plastics items isn’t always as simple as just throwing them into your recycling bin. Below are some top tips on how to recycle plastics.

  • Lids and tops on containers – both containers and lids can be recycled. It’s helpful for the recycling process if lids are removed from containers. However, don’t worry if you accidentally leave the lid on a plastic container as this will pop off later in the sorting process.
  • Give all containers and bottles a quick rinse – you can use old dishwater for this, they just need to look clean.
  • Leave labels on
  • Remove all film lids
  • Squash containers to save space

What happens to your plastic recycling?

All the plastic collected in the mixed recycling containers in north London is taken to the local materials recovery facility (MRF) run by Biffa Waste Services Ltd where the plastic is separated from other items and sent for reprocessing. Mixed plastics will often be baled and transported to specialist plastics recovery facilities (PRFs) for further sorting.

All the plastic bottles collected for recycling are sorted into different types and colours. The bottles are then cleaned and separated by type of plastic, ground into flakes or beads, and washed and sorted again. Plastic beads and flakes made from the pre-used bottles are melted down to make new products.

The collected plastic pots, tubs and trays are taken to the MRF where they are separated from other items, squashed and sent for reprocessing. The clean plastics are separated by type of plastic, ground into beads or flakes and washed and sorted again. The plastic beads and flakes made are melted down to make new products.

Plastic bag recycling involves chipping the bags into pellets that can then be reprocessed into new reusable bags.

Where your plastic recycling goes

Most of north London’s plastic recycling is processed in the United Kingdom. Last year 91% of the collected plastic recycling managed by NLWA was processed in the United Kingdom. Of the remaining tonnage, 8% (equivalent to 900 tonnes) was sent to facilities located in Europe and less than 1% was sent to other facilities in Asia.

The proportion of plastic waste exported abroad for further reprocessing is relatively low compared to other local authorities. Provisional figures from last year showed that a total of 1,042 tonnes of plastics were exported from north London, equivalent to 0.002% of the 611,000 tonnes exported from the whole of the UK, even though NLWA manages 3% of the UK’s waste.